I’ve just been reading the popular neurologist Oliver Sacks‘s piece “An Anthropologist on Mars,” from the book of the same name. It’s a short biography of Temple Grandin, a woman whose life was recently made into a movie. Grandin, an animal researcher, has Asperger’s syndrome or “high-functioning autism”; she understands science, and animals, much better than she understands the social interactions of her fellow human beings.
People describing Grandin often reach first for words like “extraordinary,” “fascinating,” “remarkable.” These are not the words that come to my mind. I say this not because I find her accomplishments limited – they are major – but because I find her story very familiar. I don’t know if I would be diagnosed with Asperger’s myself; but I do know that Asperger’s is part of a spectrum, with full-blown autism on one end. At the other end, I think, one finds the behaviour of typical science-fiction geeks and absent-minded professors, in whose company I unquestionably fall.
The central features of Asperger’s syndrome are a difficulty with social cues and a narrowness of interest; one falls far outside the normal realms of human interest and interaction. (My interests are almost opposite Grandin’s, yet this makes me sympathize with her more. Where Grandin has been obsessed with animals since her youth, my mother recalls that I was the only child to be completely uninterested when a bunny rabbit was brought into our classroom.) The subtle interplay and social niceties that come so naturally to most people, must be learned deliberately and consciously, as one learns mathematics – and learning these is often far more difficult than learning math.
There are a number of philosophical implications that the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome might have. In today’s post, I want to focus on its implications for the history of philosophy. Continue reading →